Curiouser and curiouser

As I was alighting a bus one cold morning in January some high school ruffians tried to disembark without paying their fare. They caused quite a commotion as they spoilt for a fight with the conductor.

In no time a huge crowd—that blocked the road and caused a jam—formed a ring to witness the drama.
Cars hooted but no one moved. Police ordered curious people to move on and go to work. But it fell on deaf ears.

It got me wondering if Kenyans, who are always in a hurry, are really interested in serious business. And it did not come as a surprise when the government recently acknowledged the growing “threat” posed by its curious citizens.

Last year a government agency held a drill to test its disaster preparedness. Police cars zoomed across city streets to “evacuate” a building. Ambulances whined and screeched. Word spread that there was a bomb that could go off at any time.

Instead of running away, a huge crowd of gawpers milled around the building and shoved one another to get a better view.

Any lessons they might have learned were forgotten as fast as you can say, “jambo”.

Recently a fire swept through one of the busiest supermarkets in the city—it killed more than 30 people.

An ever-curious Nairobi crowd gathered around the building, blocking the fire fighters’ access, causing chaos and stymieing the coordinated rescue teams’ efforts. Police ringed the place with yellow crime-scene tape but the surging crowd tore it off as the hordes went in for a closer look.

The popping sounds of gas cylinders did not deter them as a choking, acrid smoke engulfed the area. Spectators inhaled the smoke as if they had gills and soon people started fainting.

Then a huge ball of fire, fanned by a strong wind, swooshed near enough to singe some people’s hair and send them scampering. But a few moments later they were back.

While it’s a politician’s dream to get a crowd’s attention, here you don’t need special talents. All you have to do is walk down a busy road in the city centre and point at something on the top floor of a building. Within a few minutes passers-by will start looking up to see what you are pointing at.

Some will stop and stare. If they don’t see anything, they’ll crane their necks and squint their eyes for a clearer view. Soon a crowd of curious onlookers will form, all staring upwards.

In no time you will hear someone ask: “What is it?” And they will be answered: “Over there, you see, there — the person behind that window — he wants to commit suicide.” And the person they are pointing at will also be wondering what those people down below are staring at.

It’s not unusual to see hundreds looking up at the building.

On a recent Monday police surrounded a bank—movie-style—as some heavily armed thugs on a robbing mission were trapped inside. Huge crowds milled around the Standard Chartered Bank, watching the action and moving ever closer.

Luckily there was no shoot-out, because if any stray bullets had been fired there could have been several “martyrs” among the crowd. In fact the huge crowd made it possible for the thugs to blend in and escape.

In mid-January Kenyan curiosity made world headlines when villagers ran to scoop petrol from an overturned petrol tanker.

As usual they came in their hundreds, carrying buckets to siphon the fuel. Some came from more than 20km away. But when our bribe-loving cops tried to stop the party by asking for 100 Kenya shillings from each person, someone lit a cigarette, angry that he had been shoved aside because he had no money.

Next there was a massive explosion, fuelled by more than 50 000 litres of petrol. More than 130 people died on the spot and hundreds were seriously injured.

It was the curious onlookers—including women and children—who topped the casualty list. The blazing ball of fire licked people standing 200m away.

But the gold medal for curious Kenyans goes to the good people of Mishomoroni, a sleepy village in the coastal city of Mombasa.

In early February business came to a standstill after word went round that a couple had been found “stuck”.

Office workers, teachers, farmers, school children and market women abandoned the day’s activities as they trekked the few kilometres to the chief’s camp where the “stuck” couple was said to be.

The couple had reportedly got stuck while enjoying illicit sex.

In some Kenyan communities when the husband goes on a long journey, he “locks” his wife so that whoever tampers with his “goods” gets stuck.

Now the good people of Mishomoroni—like most Kenyans—did not just want to look at the office in which the couple was reportedly locked, they wanted to see the actual “exhibits”.

They caused quite a ruckus even when the chief told them there was no such thing. He had to bring in police reinforcements to chase away the crowd. What the chief forgot is the persistence of curious Kenyans.

No one went to work that day. They waited till evening to see the couple. By the time they gave up, probably because of hunger pangs, the mammoth crowd had spent hours waiting.

It’s been weeks now and no one is sure if it was a rumour or the truth.

Munene Kilongi is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers’ Africa Bureau in Nairobi

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